"Oh, right. You're the breast lady," said the staffer at the fourth floor paging desk of the San Francisco Public Library as I handed him the yellow request slips.
Breast Lady. The phrase evoked, for me, a grotesque cartoon bosom mounted atop spindly legs. When he called my name fifteen minutes later to hand me books unearthed from the catacombs of the library, I felt compelled to explain--not for the first time and perhaps more than a bit primly--that my frequent visits to take notes on noncirculating volumes like A Century of Lingerie, Uplift: the Bra in America, and Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras were for research. I was writing a novel in which one of the characters, bra designer Francis Wells, turns part of his house into a bra museum to pay homage to the part of the female anatomy he reveres.
Despite such occasional mortification, however, I relished conducting research for How To Buy a Love of Reading. First of all, it allowed me to bring home an immoderate number of volumes from the library. (I'm the kind of geek who relishes sitting on floor surrounded by stacks of books.) Secondly, it gave me an excuse--at least for a time--to wallow in information. In real life, you just don't get much license to wallow in unnecessary details. In real life, one has to decide rather quickly what is important about a situation.
Say you need a green pepper for a recipe. You enter the grocery store, head down the produce aisle, perhaps contemplating whether you should pick up some bananas while you're there, and finally grab the pepper. Mission accomplished. You do not embark upon a comprehensive inspection of every fruit and vegetable. If you happen upon a fruit you never knew existed-say, a Rambutan, you do not make a point of visiting every other grocery store in town in search of other yet-undiscovered fruit (which you know must exist if a hitherto-unknown-to-you fruit like a Rambutan exists, and which, though you have no idea what you'd do with it, you now feel compelled to discover). You do not get addicted to collecting Cherimoyas and Granadillas and Uglis. Or, at least for your sake, I hope you don't.
The research period for How To Buy a Love of Reading was not unlike that--a glorious, gluttonous time in which I hoarded information in journals and on note cards I'll never be able to bring myself to throw away, less than five percent of which made it into the novel. A thousand possible foods that could be served at the novel's fictional parties and hundreds of kinds of flowers that could decorate them. The auction catalogue of Jackie O's estate. Lists of organisms living in the Long Island Sound. Notes on art and artists, reality TV, Long Island's history and mansions, F. Scott Fitzgerald, fat camp, tides, manners, medieval customs, dress, and weaponry, the care and feeding of fish, The Long Island Rail Road, hedge mazes, and, yes, bras.
You might think the day I realized the library pages were calling me "Breast Lady" might have marked the end of my research rapture. But the truth is, the winnowing period didn't happen for many months later. That day in the library, I went right back to taking notes about the evolution of corsets. I knew it couldn't go on forever. I knew soon I'd have to stop collecting data and start making choices. I knew it would be like growing up. But not today.
(If you feel the need to read way too much about things like the history of lingerie, the mansions of the Gold Coast, or the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, visit the Books, Books, Books section on my website for lists of links.)